Echo and the Bunnymen The Fountain

[Ocean Rain; 2009]

Styles: pop/rock, post-punk
Others: The Cure, latter-day Television, The Mission U.K.

As much as I enjoy bands like The Arcade Fire and The National, it confounds me when I hear people lauding their novelty. Bands like Echo and the Bunnymen may have something to say about that. After all, their masterpiece, 1984’s Ocean Rain, is undergoing a reexamination for both its brilliance and long-lasting influence. In fact, the brooding, mystical, orchestral-pop opus has been the subject of two reissues over the past decade, and the band has recently made several live appearances featuring track-by-track performances of the album in its entirety. In its day, the album’s contribution—taking baroque and neo-romantic tendencies and putting them through post-punk rigor—never completely connected with the masses on an artistic level (commercially, the album rose to #4 on the Billboard charts). Rather, like their contemporaries The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen became regarded as a singles band, just charismatic enough to slip into the periphery of the MTV generation. Ocean Rain, therefore, would have to incubate for 20 years and only emerge into greatness once its progeny of influenced bands came into notoriety.

Glory days aside (1980s), Echo has persisted into the new millennium with the release of three new albums. While characterized by their spottiness and lack of any remarkable growth, these latter albums maintain great loyalty to the band’s trademark mournful wonderment. Their latest effort, The Fountain, with its apt interplay between Will Sergeant’s ringing guitar and Ian McCulloch’s baritone and neo-romantic/gothic imagery, most readily evokes the band’s 1987 self-titled album (the “Lips Like Sugar” one). Absent therefore are seething, slow-burners like “The Killing Moon,” dreamy, chamber-pop gems like “Seven Seas,” placid funk breakdowns like “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo,” and ramshackle orchestral pieces (read: a clear precursor to Funeral) like “Never Stop.” Instead, these 10, shimmering songs race forth with soaring melodies and intimately familiar song structures.

In the absence of longtime Bunnymen Les Pattinson (bass) and Pete de Freitas (drums)—who died in a 1989 motorcycle accident—McCulloch and Sergeant do most of the heavy lifting on The Fountain, relying on the dynamics that in the past had served them very well. Lead single and album opener “I Think I Need it Too,” bursts like a sunset across the speakers. Then McCulloch’s verses ground the song until, like clockwork, the song’s enormous chorus arrives. Taken alone, it’s a solid track and certainly worthy of appearance on an updated, career-encompassing “best of” compilation. For this album, however, the song establishes too predictably what’s to follow. The gleam from each subsequent song is identical, so that listening to The Fountain becomes akin to looking into the sun. Only “Life of a Thousand Crimes,” the album’s strongest track, breaks from this motif with its fist-pumping, minor-chord balladry.

But it’s difficult to blame this unrelenting sheen of The Fountain on the band’s post-1989 lineup changes. History, after all, has shown us that the various parts of Echo can function well on their own. (McCulloch’s 1989 somber solo effort, Candleland, is a goth-pop near-masterpiece, and Echo and the Bunnymen’s McCulloch-less 1990 debut, Reverberation, is a pleasant mix of psychedelia and straightforward pop song craft.) I also don’t think the blame should be founded in effort. In fact, the aspect of The Fountain that should both delight and concern longtime fans is that McCulloch and Sergeant aren’t “mailing it in” with this recording—to their credit, there’s genuine aspiration in these songs. Unfortunately, this is also the source of The Fountain’s weakness: for all of their wonderful contributions to modern pop music, McCulloch and Sergeant aspired for too much this time around.

Links: Echo and the Bunnymen - Ocean Rain

Most Read